St. Jerome: Patron Saint of Librarians

St. Jerome - 1

At the end of September, during the week leading up to Homecoming 2009 and the celebration of the 40th anniversary of Preus Library, we also remember the life of St. Jerome, patron saint of librarians and libraries as well as archivists, translators and encyclopedists. September 30 is celebrated as a feast day in the Catholic Church for this canonized saint and Doctor of the Church and as a day of commemoration in Lutheran churches.

St. Jerome was born in 347 CE in Stridon (modern Northeast Italy) to Christian parents and died in Bethlehem, September 30, 420 CE. His remains, originally buried at Bethlehem, are said to have been later transferred to the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome although other sites also claim some relics.

St. Jerome was well educated in rhetoric, Latin and Greek and the liberal arts. He began to build a personal library as a student, composed primarily of the pagan classics. Baptized around 365 CE, he reported a dream in 373-374 CE which affirmed his Christian commitment. Seeking greater solitude for his studies, he joined a colony of Christian hermits in the desert east of Antioch in late 375 CE.

We learn from his letters that although he lived in a rock cave, he had retained his expanding library, adding the works of Christian authors. After 379 St. Jerome was ordained a priest and began his life as a biblical scholar. He helped with the establishment of a papal library in Rome and began a revised version of the Psalms and New Testament which began a 20-year project that resulted in the standard Latin text for the Bible.

St. Jerome left Rome in 385 settling in Bethlehem at the monastery he founded. It is apparent that his library was finally installed in this monastery since other scholars reported copying texts from this collection. During the 34 years he spent in Bethlehem, he continued his correspondence, prepared biblical commentaries, wrote historical treatises and translated the scriptures. He completed his work on the Vulgate Bible in 404 CE. His library was destroyed in 416 when Bethlehem was sacked by bandits.

St. Jerome

Although St. Jerome has been referred to as the second most voluminous writer (after St. Augustine) in ancient Latin Christianity, reasons for recognition of him as the patron saint of librarians and libraries as well as archivists, translators and encyclopedists emanated from traditional lore. A review of his life and work suggests several reasons for this title. St. Jerome’s personal library was considered to be the most important private collection of the period. He was a great bibliophile, interested in collecting both pagan and Christian books. His learning was considered unequaled during the time he lived since he was an insatiable reader and had a phenomenal memory for what he learned. Finally, his scholarship broke new ground with his translations of the Bible and Biblical commentaries.

St. Jerome is often represented in art as a half-clad hermit with cross, skull and Bible. A red hat or some other indication of his rank as a cardinal is frequently part of the image. He often is accompanied by a lion from whose paw he is said to have withdrawn a thorn. Less often art work with his image includes an owl representing wisdom and scholarship. Books and writing materials typically are also included in art representing him.

Images: Domenico Ghirlandaio: Saint Jerome in his Study, 1480;
Niccolò Antonio Colantonio. Saint Jerome.

Ref: Kelly, J.N.D. Jerome: His Life, Writings, and Controversies. New York: Harper, 1975; Jerome. Selected Letters of St. Jerome. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991; Thompson, James W. The Medieval Library. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939; Kaschins, Elizabeth and Kemp, Jane. “Saint Jerome, the Patron Saint of Librarians.” Library Journal. 113:14 (September 1, 1988), 135-136; The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004; Murphy, F.X. “St. Jerome.” The New Catholic Encyclopedia. 2nd ed. Vol. 7. Detroit: Thomson/Gale, 2003;

Jane Kemp
Librarian Emerita